Issue 47 (2015)
Evgenii Tkachuk: Startup (Startap, 2014)
reviewed by David McVey© 2015
Evgenii Tkachuk’s 2014 film Startup (Startap) presents the saga of Holmes, a fictitious Internet search engine based on Russia’s market leader, Yandex. Not to belabor the obvious, but Tkachuk’s film features much in common with David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010), which dramatizes the contentious launch of Facebook. No critic worth her salt can deny that Startup draws copiously from Fincher’s award-winning predecessor for inspiration, not only by way of subject matter, but also style. In addition to a storyline that chronicles an undeterred protagonist’s invention of an Internet juggernaut, Tkachuk’s film mimics the subdued tone, controlled pacing, and masculine brooding of The Social Network. Even the soundtrack of Startup is reminiscent of Trent Reznor’s Oscar-winning minimalist score. (B-2’s “Serebro,” however, is an inspired choice for the closing credits.) But rather than sensationalize the very real legal contretemps that ironically dissolved the relationships of the contributing founders of a website designed to bring people together, Startup seeks to demonstrate that a fantasized group of Russian entrepreneurs can collaborate with only minor discord to create a world-class digital product in spite of their homeland’s bureaucratic hurdles. That a Russian filmmaker might imitate Hollywood fare to make a cinematic statement about Russian exceptionalism is nothing new. In Startup, however, this approach verges on the passé. Holmes’ workaholic brainchild, Boris (played by director Tkachuk), is a one-note caricature of earnest determination. Moreover, the film’s absence of any high-stakes struggles renders it a somewhat somniferous viewing experience.
Startup begins in 1996, when Boris, who corresponds to Yandex’s Arkadii Volozh, is a student at university. Unlike The Social Network’s Mark Zuckerberg (as interpreted by Jesse Eisenberg), Boris is not only a respectable, but a supremely likable character, despite his almost pathological commitment to the startup. He is a mathematics whiz with the noblest of intentions. An expert in algorithms, Boris dreams of building a Russo-centric Internet search engine. If this digital tool can account for the morphological complexity of Russian, it should in theory be among the finest on the planet. Boris seems singularly concerned with inventing a product that will, first, provide a genuine service to his fellow Russians and, second, compete on the global market as proof of Russia’s technological prowess. Early in the film, Boris teams up with Seva (Khamatov), an extroverted “facilitator” who forges strategic liaisons to grease the skids for Boris’ endeavor. Occupying the role of Yandex’s Il’ia Segalovich, Seva serves as Holmes’ charismatic manager. His smooth talking sometimes gets results, but sometimes backfires—although never to exceeding detriment. With the assistance of programming wunderkind and tea snob Bergamot (Bogdan), Boris is able, with relatively minimal effort, to develop a digital tool that can go from scanning Bulgakov’s corpus for keywords to winning tech awards for excellence in the United States.
The film’s primary shortcoming—in addition to hideous wigs and wooden English dialogue—is that, despite a litany of squabbles among characters, it offers zero actual conflict in its portrayal of the Holmes startup. Boris’ devotion to the project never falters. When he must forge a tactical business partnership, the necessary people materialize as if on cue. For example, when Boris realizes he requires trained programmers to write code, Seva’s professor Nikolai Petrovich (Vitorgan) dispatches the duo to the talented Bergamot, who works on computers in monastic seclusion in a hangar. After Boris encounters several refusals of financial support, one firm coolly extends a lucrative investment package, which includes the copyright to all digital codes he develops. Even Boris’ strained personal relationships eventually heal. After his beloved father (Morozov) dies from a heart attack, instead of grieving, the son interprets the loss as a catalyst to work even more tirelessly. When Seva squanders too much of Holmes’ budget on a bacchanalian advertising campaign, the company heads briefly quarrel, only to have their disagreements vanish from the narrative in the ensuing scenes. Finally, Inga (Andreevaite), Boris’ Lithuanian wife, wearies of Boris’ protracted absences from the home. She absconds with their son to Lithuania to live with her parents. In an unexplained about-face, in the film’s end by telephone, Inga forgives Boris’ neglect of their family. With noble understanding in her voice, she invites him back into her life just as soon as he finishes his important business.
The only credible conflict in the film arises when Grigorii Ivanovich (Sokolov), a high-ranking official in the Putin administration—an avuncular portrait of Vladimir Vladimirovich peers down from his office wall—informs Boris and Seva that the government, in order to vouchsafe its prerogative of manipulating information consumed by the Russian public, insists on acquiring Holmes. This is a matter of necessity, Grigorii Ivanovich argues, since the world’s leading search engine “Index” (i.e., Google) is conducting data collection for the American government. Boris counters that search-result objectivity is Holmes’ standout feature. This quality renders the product uniquely attractive to a world beleaguered by state surveillance. The film, thus, proposes that Russia ought to market viable alternative models to global consumers instead of seeking merely to develop Russian-flavored avatars of dubious American originals. Fortunately, the government takeover is averted in mere minutes by a telephone call from none other than Nikolai Petrovich, the academic who initially linked up Boris and Bergamot. The influential scholar persuades Putin’s henchman to compromise with Holmes’ founders. As a result of Nikolai Petrovich’s intercession, Holmes is allowed to sell twenty-five percent of its stock in an international IPO, and a “neutral” Russian bank is allowed to maintain a titular share in the company’s assets to prevent international acquisition. Everybody wins!
Perhaps the film’s anodyne account of the labor pains of a successful, government-sanctioned tech enterprise is meant to counterbalance two uncomfortable narratives. The first is that the Russian government is hell-bent on controlling all facets of the Internet within its borders. Talented techies do have reason to be skittish about work in Russia. Vkontakte-founder Pavel Durov was forced to relinquish his company to government-sanctioned institutions and felt compelled to flee the country (Lipman 2014). Another high-publicity casualty of government interference in the net is Galina Timchenko, the erstwhile editor of Lenta.ru, a website she crafted into a highly effective dissemination tool of political news, albeit one which did not consistently hew to the Kremlin’s approved narratives (Remnick 2014). In addition, as recently as December 2014, Google announced that it would evacuate its engineering operations from Russia—perhaps taking its engineers out of the country, as well—in response to cumbersome legal restrictions (Huddleston 2014). Although Putin himself has called the Internet a “C.I.A. project” (Lipman 2014), he has, as recently as October 2014, given reassurances that his administration “is not planning to ‘governmentalize’ (ogusdarstvlivat’) the Internet and thereby limit the lawful interests of society and business in the information realm” (Anon. 2014). Startup aligns its message with this narrative. The film can be seen to legitimate the government’s security concerns, as it simultaneously telegraphs the notion that profitable tech-sector investment in Russia is possible, if investors will only be sensitive to said concerns.
The second anxiety addressed in the film relates to Russia’s labor force. Startup suggests that skilled, patriotic computer programmers exist in Russia beyond the stereotype of hackers, content pirates, and identity thieves. Tkachuk ostensibly wants to reassure viewers that Russia houses a dedicated cohort of digital entrepreneurs who value national prosperity over the opportunity to score a quick ruble. This concern is not unfounded. Sergei Riazantsev and Elena Pis’mennaia report, “According to the estimations of the National Science Fund of the United States, approximately 70-80% of world-class mathematicians and 50% of theoretical physicists have left Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union” (Riazantsev and Pis’mennaia 2013, 29). Many of these scientists have emigrated to the United States, where their praxis benefits American institutions. Riazantsev and Pis’mennaia assert Silicon Valley is so saturated with Russian émigrés that “one out of three of Microsoft’s technological developments is accomplished by a computer programmer from Russia” (Riazantsev and Pis’mennaia 2013, 29). Regardless of this claim’s veracity, it points to a belief that the best and brightest Russians are fleeing to more favorable R&D climates, a trend that has resulted in an economically deleterious utechka umov, or “brain drain” from the homeland (Riazantsev and Pis’mennaia 2013, 27). Fewer and fewer innovative people remain in Russia at a time when the country is desperately striving to diversify its economy.
Startup suggests that there do exist scientists who will collaborate first and foremost for Russia’s sake. At the film’s fabula begins, Boris arrives late to a university mathematics competition. Although the American judges disqualify him for tardiness, after they witness his talent, they invite him on the spot to immigrate to Silicon Valley for work. They do not wish to purchase the algorithm he modeled at the competition; they want him. But Boris declines. He is determined to work for Russia. Thereafter, several consultants encourage Boris to develop programs in English to render them marketable, or else to sell them immediately to American companies for fast cash. One advisor holds his finger above his head to highlight distance as he tells Boris that to develop a business from scratch in Russia is fifty times as difficult as it is in the West. Boris agrees, but points out that success in Russia is then fifty times as meaningful. Other characters associated with Holmes, such as Seva and Bergamot, opt to remain in Russia, as well. Startup thus appears to advocate not only for the development of marketable high-tech services in Russia, but also for a proactive retention of the human capital required to conceive of those services. The film contends that Russia’s greatest insufficiently tapped resource is not fossil fuels, or even mathematical functions, but its people. In fact, the film concludes with a frame of text, which reads, “Russia exports mathematics every bit as much as oil. But for some reason we are not talking about this.” This text should instead read, “Russia exports human capital every bit as much as oil. For some reason we are doing nothing to stop this.” Startup proposes that Russia cultivate its human capital so that pioneering thinkers will devote their efforts to the growth of the domestic economy.
The film’s finale reinforces this sentiment. After returning from Holmes’ IPO in New York, Boris visits the company’s new Moscow skyscraper for a business meeting. As he boards the lift, Boris encounters Bergamot, who had disappeared from the narrative during the film’s second half. Bergamot visibly wishes to reconnect with his former colleague. He proposes a visit to the hangar where they opened their first office. Even though Boris has an urgent meeting, he decides to chat with Bergamot, who announces that he has “an idea.” Having joined the ranks of the economic patriarchy—he now sports a push-broom moustache à la Nikita Mikhalkov—Boris recognizes that he must be attentive to skilled employees’ needs, lest they take their ideas, as well as Russia’s potential GDP, abroad. If only all sectors of Russian governance would cultivate human capital this way…
University of Kansas
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Huddleston, Jr., Tom. 2014. “Google Gives a Big ‘Nyet’ to Russian Engineering Operations.” Fortune. 11 December.
Lipman, Masha. 2014. “Putin’s Fear of the Internet.” The New Yorker. 25 April.
Anon. 2014. “Putin: Rossiia ne budet ogranichivat’ dostup v internet i stavit’ ego pod kontrol’.” Itar-Tass. 1 October.
Remnick, David. 2014. “Putin Moves against the Press.” The New Yorker. 12 March.
Riazantsev, Sergei and Elena Pis’mennaia. 2013. “Emigratsiia uchenykh iz Rossii: ‘Tsirkuliatsiia’ ili ‘utechka’ umov.” Sotsiologicheskie issledovaniia 4: 24-35.
Startup, Russia 2014
92 min, color
Director: Evgenii Tkachuk
Screenplay: Dmitrii Sobolev, Mikhail Kukushkin, Igor’ Skolkov
Cinematography: Maksim Osadchii
Editing: Ol’ga Bykadorova
Soundtrack: Danila Kalashnik and Sergei Chekryzhov
Cast: Evgenii Tkachuk, Shamil’ Khamatov, Ieva Andreevaite, Semen Morozov, Emmanuil Vitorgan, Andrei Sokolov, Dmitrii Bogdan
Producers: Irina Smolko, Irina Lebedeva, Vladimir Laptev
Production: Danais Fil’m
Evgenii Tkachuk: Startup (Startap, 2014)
reviewed by David McVey© 2015